The wonderful thing about the black church for me is that it forces you to come to terms with the centrality of love in the world. 

— Cornel West,  A Conversation With Cornel West (Los Angeles Times)


Yesterday, I sat on the corner of Goodwin and Bradley, frozen, staring northward toward Mount Olive Missionary Baptist Church. Cars whizzed down Bradley going east and west.

The parking lot of Mount Olive was filled with red and white fire department vehicles, pickup trucks and cars. I drove around and entered the Carver Park subdivision and continued up the street where I could see sagging yellow tape and some of the burned out edifice of the church.

Diagonal to the church, a women stood in her doorway in a robe and sleep cap. We looked at each other and then we both looked at the back of the church. I was struck by how very close the church fire had been to other homes in the neighborhood and prayed a prayer of thanks that none of these homes were damaged. My heart was heavy nonetheless.

I wasn’t really sure why I had come to the church — but I just felt that I had to — to pay my respects, I guess.

Two days ago, when I learned of the fire on social media as posted pictures by local African American photographers Diane Nesbitt and Darrin Smith, while articles and prayers rolled across my newsfeed.

Between tending to my daughter congested and sleepy on the couch, watching an MLK tribute on CSPAN and preparing dinner, I began reaching out.

I reached out to Pastor Thomas with my own condolences and to see what the needs were. I was surprised at how quickly he responded with a brief message saying they were still assessing needs. Then, I was in touch with my own church community, the broader Black Greek community, my extended social media family, my own sorority (Alpha Kappa Alpha ) chapter president, all while texting my husband images that I was seeing while he was out attending an MLK event.

It seemed like I spend hours communicating back and forth with individuals throughout the day sharing details, discussing images, figuring out how to help.

But isn’t that what you do when a loved one has passed?

Photos by Darrin Smith from Champaign Fire Department Twitter page

The thought to go to the church kept popping up...but I pushed it away. Sick baby, housework, the need to be home. The truth is that — despite all that “communicating” — I was doing, I still wasn’t ready.

Photo by Nicole Anderson Cobb

I have never been a member of Mount Olive Missionary Baptist Church, but have been the beneficiary of Mount Olive’s consistent generosity and hospitality helmed by Pastor Keith Thomas, his staff, and the Mount Olive congregation — whether it was because my sorority was hosting a school board forum, ASCEND mentoring program, or RIF book-giveaway at Mount Olive…

  • Or I was handling logistics for a community informational for Representative Carol Ammons and Pastor Thomas himself came in on his day off, opened up the church and helped me set up tables and organize the space…and stayed for hours till the event ended.
  • Or I was attending a Black Greek Council meeting to deputize voter registrars…
  • Or interviewing Pastor Thomas for a grad school project because he was spearheading a water drive to deliver tens of thousands of bottles of water to Flint Michigan…
  • Or the entire Mount Olive community was hosting standing-room-only homegoing celebrations for community members who passed on...

Mount Olive has been a true community center in Champaign-Urbana, welcoming community members (especially African Americans) seeking space to worship, meet, plan, educate, pray, grieve, laugh, prepare for the next leg of their individual or collective journeys.

Photo by Nicole Anderson Cobb

When I explained the fire to my seven-year old, she said “Awwwwww, Mama, now where am I gon’ go for book giveaways?” As I laughed a bit thinking about her lament, I had to remember this truth. 

The abiding legacy of Mount Olive Missionary Baptist Church (like the historic Mount of Olives in the Bible) is the ministry central to the life and work of Christ that happened there: as a church of love, of access, of safe harbor, of goodwill, as a place for the saint, the sinner, the Samaritan, the seeker, the sufferer to stop by and gather strength for just a little while. 

Photo by Darrin Smith from Champaign Fire Department Twitter page

So, in the face of this devastating fire, we are reminded often in the church that we must not grieve as if we have no hope. Mount Olive — the building, the edifice might have been overtaken by the elements. But praise God that the the ministry and the mission of Mount Olive Missionary Baptist Church endures and will rise to even higher heights — if we faint not.

Photo by Diane Nesbitt

“...We heard him say, ‘I will destroy this temple that is made with hands, and in three days I will build another, not made with hands....’” Mark 14:58

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There will be a “Coming Together For Care and Encouragement” Service at 7 p.m. tonight, Wednesday, January 23rd, for current and former member of Mount Olive Church at Salem Missionary Baptist Church 500 E. Park St. in Champaign. For more information, call (217) 356-8176.

Any monetary donations or words of encouragement should be sent to:

Mount Olive Missionary Baptist Church
P.O. Box 342
Champaign, IL 61820-9997.

You can also follow them on Facebook

Top photo by Darrin Smith from Champaign Fire Department Twitter page